The Supreme Court on Friday tagged with a batch of earlier petitions a plea from former JNU student leader Umar Khalid challenging the constitutionality of the anti-terror law UAPA, which critics say is being increasingly used by governments against political opponents and journalists.
Khalid has been behind bars for nearly three years, charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, in a conspiracy case relating to the 2020 Delhi communal riots. His bail petition seeking parity with co-accused who have received bail is to be heard by the apex court on November 1.
The bench of Justices Aniruddha Bose and Bela M. Trivedi orally asked senior advocate Kapil Sibal, representing Khalid, why his client had found it necessary to move the present petition challenging the UAPA when a batch of similar pleas was already before the court.
Sibal replied that the issue was serious and “so many things are happening in the country”. He did not elaborate. Justice Bose then said the matter was being tagged with similar petitions.
The matter is, however, yet to come up for regular hearing despite a bench headed by then Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana issuing a notice to the Centre in November 2021 on two petitions, moved by two advocates and a journalist, challenging the UAPA’s constitutional validity.
A similar petition was later filed by the Foundation of Media Professionals, and a bench headed by then Chief Justice U.U. Lalit had in September last year issued a notice to the government on it.
Among other strict measures, the UAPA denies the possibility of anticipatory bail to an accused.
On November 11, 2021, the bench headed by Justice Ramana had issued notices to the Centre and the Tripura government amid allegations that the anti-terror law was being used against lawyers and journalists for their social media posts on alleged communal violence in the northeastern state.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan had sought urgent hearing on behalf of the three petitioners — advocates Mukesh Gaur and Ansarul Haq Ansari, and journalist Shyam Meera Singh — who had been booked under the UAPA and the Indian Penal Code for their posts on the Tripura violence.
The petitioners had pleaded that the vagueness of the definition of unlawful activity in the law; the “wide net” it cast on the freedom of speech and expression; its tendency to bring within its fold mere criticism of government policies or actions; and its indiscriminate use by governments against their critics thanks to the absolute bar on anticipatory bail the act imposes, and the near-impossibility of securing bail under it, produced a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech and expression.
They had argued that these provisions violated Articles 14 (equality), 19 (free speech) and 21 (right to life and liberty) of the Constitution.
The apex court had also last year issued a notice to the Centre towards examining whether the offence of gold smuggling qualified as a “terrorist” activity under the UAPA following conflicting interpretations by the high courts in Kerala and Rajasthan.